NYC School Board Approves Bilingual Reforms

Published May 1, 2001

The New York City Board of Education on February 28 voted to make important reforms to the city’s bilingual education programs. The vote is likely to make a substantial difference for many of the 160,000 English learners currently enrolled in bilingual education in the Big Apple.

The three key components of the new plan are English immersion, choices for parents, and limiting participation in transitional programs to three years.

English immersion: The creation of new, intensive English immersion programs designed to offer students a rapid transition to English fluency and mainstream placement in English-speaking classrooms.

Choices for parents: All parents will have the opportunity to place their children in whatever program they feel is best suited to their needs. Their choices will include English immersion, dual language immersion, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and bilingual education programs taught predominantly in students’ non-English native language.

Three-Year Limit: Parents will need to give their permission when school officials feel it is necessary for students to remain in transitional programs for longer than three years.

Praise for the Reforms

The New York Times called the Board of Education’s vote “the largest overhaul of [New York City] bilingual programs in more than two decades and a crucial change that will give parents more control in their children’s placement in bilingual education programs.”

The plan was proposed by city Schools Chancellor Harold Levy and passed by a 7-0 vote. It comes after months of high-profile scrutiny of bilingual education and other programs for Limited English-Proficient students. Last fall, the Board released a study showing bilingual education students were significantly outperformed by their peers in ESL classes in reading and in math. (See “Debate Over Bilingual Ed Moves to Big Apple,” School Reform News, November 2000.)

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani convened a Mayor’s Task Force for Bilingual Education, headed by former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, which held public hearings in October. After the vote, Mastro praised the Board’s solution as a valuable compromise.

“We forged these reforms by acknowledging that bilingual ed has failed too many children to go unchanged, but also by respecting that some parents, particularly in the Hispanic community, still prefer bilingual education,” Mastro said.

Implementation Questions Remain

Questions remain about how the new policies will mesh with a standing federal court decree signed with the Hispanic civil rights group Aspira in 1974. The decree holds that English learners must receive at least some instruction in their non-English, native languages. Although the new bilingual reforms were approved by a unanimous 7-0 vote, some board members and California bilingual education reform leader Ron Unz expressed concern they might raise legal issues relating to that decree.

NYC school board president William Thompson, however, was not worried about a potential conflict. “We have been careful to stay within” the decree’s limits, Thompson said. He called the new policies a “giant step forward. This is an important day for education in New York City.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].